Reflecting on our learning about General Education

Five members of the Queens University of Charlotte faculty attended the 2012 AAC&U’s conference on General Education in New Orleans: Chip Bowen, Suzanne Cooper-Guasco, John McArthur, Lynn Morton, and Jeff Thomas.

Our key take-away from the conference, aptly stated by our distinguished colleague from the English department: 

An excellent General Education program has clearly defined student learning outcomes that are addressed sequentially throughout the Gen Ed courses and then carried through the major. Students and faculty should be able to articulate the goals of such an integrated Gen Ed program, and the results should be measurable through assessment. A solid General Education program has a mission, values, excellent curriculum, prepared and adequately resourced faculty, and an emphasis on the learner.

Below are highlights of some of our continued thoughts from the conference for Queens University of Charlotte. Read on.

From Lynn Morton:

“From ‘Why?’ to ‘How?’ to ‘Well Done!’: Strategies for Strengthening General Education [pre-conference workshop]
This workshop covered review and revision of a general education program from start to finish.  The steps involved include determining the current cost of the current program as well as the cost of not changing it (both in revenue, costs, and personnel), making a case for using existing resources more strategically, agreeing upon university-wide outcomes, and creating a gen ed curriculum that is a platform for the majors.  The outcomes should be carried through the majors intentionally, and universities should be able to clearly articulate why their programs are coherent and integrated.

“Strategies for General Education Administrators”: Sponsored by the Council for the Administration of General and Liberal Studies
There are many models for administering General Education. The least effective is the faculty member chairing a committee with no release time; the most effective is a full-time administrator with oversight over Gen Ed and expertise in the subject.  A good Gen Ed administrative structure also includes funds for faculty development, clerical help (which could be students),  and widespread campus buy-in and representation.  The most helpful tip in the session was the suggestion that Gen Ed courses (such as Writing Intensive courses) be “certified” by a central committee as meeting the Gen Ed outcomes; they can be “de-certified” and lose their Gen Ed status if they fail to meet certain requirements.

“An integrated model for outcomes-based curricular planning and faculty development”
The faculty and administration at Loyola University in New Orleans had to completely rethink the curriculum after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent closing of the university for 6 months.  This ordeal actually provided a platform for general education examination and reform.  As in most of the sessions at the AAC&U, the suggestion was to create a fully integrated Gen Ed program that prepared students for their majors, with the outcomes carried through the major and all faculty aware of the university-wide outcomes.  Loyola  also instituted a voluntary faculty development institute to prepare faculty to teach the freshman seminar.

From Jeff Thomas:

    1. We’re doing pretty well!
      Our overall learning objectives are more in line with AAC&U recommendations than we see at many places.  Additionally, we’re ahead of the game in terms of recognizing the importance of assessment of those objectives.  We do still have some work to do on seeing how learning outcomes (LO’s) are evaluated in non-Core General Education (GE) courses, as well as in the major and the minor.  Are courses currently designed with specific LO’s in mind or is their inclusion an afterthought?
    2. Increase intentionality
      Most of our students are probably not aware of the LO’s that we have for the GE.  We might benefit from being more intentional about the particular LO’s in different classes AND allowing students to evaluate how they perceive their success in meeting those LO’s.  Several presentations on the utility of ePortfolios demonstrated that they might be a useful and appropriate tool for allowing students to think about their own mastery of the GE learning objectives AND would also allow us to see how other coursework (in the major or minor) contribute to the GE mission.
    3. Evaluating our own mission
      Queens is not the only school that values service as an important component to a liberal arts education.  Several of the schools that encourage service also have mechanisms for assessing that service and participation in co-curricular activities.  One way for us to allow students to think intentionally about the role that service plays in their own educations would be to incorporate some guiding questions/prompts on an overall assessment (ePortfolio comes up again).  Setting up a system where students could comment on their experiences would also allow us to evaluate our success at living up to our mission statement.
    4. Interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary/transdisciplinary and the pains of integration
      Many schools are working towards increasing programmatic integration.  One basis for this learning that was used was the Lumina Foundations Degree Qualifications Profile (http://www.luminafoundation.org/newsroom/topics/2011-01-25-degree_profile_qa.html) which emphasizes 5 items:  1.   Specialized knowledge; 2.  Broad knowledge;  3.  Intellectual skills;  4.  Applied learning;  and 5.  Civic learning.  One program detailed a joint effort between a chemistry course, an English course and a statistics class that addressed a problem surrounding water quality issues.  While each class covered its own set of materials, they also had some common readings.  The chemistry class collected data on water quality from a local stream system.  The statistics class learned how to evaluate the data that they collected.  The English class worked on writing up the results in a way that could be shared with others in the community.  Each course fed very consciously into the whole learning experience of the students.  In the end, each course retained its identity, but each one was also important in solving the whole problem.  This strategy is less about being interdisciplinary and more about multidisciplinary or systems-level thinking.
    5. Does anyone know what the GE is?
      Lots of faculty at Queens teach in the GE, but do most of those faculty know what the LO’s are?  Do faculty know where LO’s are assessed (or should be)? Do faculty understand how the GE courses are meant to interact with each other?

From John McArthur:

Recaps of sessions attended at the conference (click for more information):

From Chip Bowen:

My main takeaway was that seriously implementing GenEd requires a full-time person, and is hence something too big for a simple committee to handle.  Of course, as a committee we can make lots of suggestions  and filter ideas. But someone really needs to lead this effort full-time until it gets implemented. After that, a committee can then evaluate and recommend revisions at needed.

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